In the flurry of research about Americans’ social ties conducted over the last decade or two, one trend stands out sharply: Americans are inviting people over less often.
This is not to say, however, that Americans are seeing their friends and relatives less often. But it does appear that “entertaining” people in the home is a diminishing habit. How come?
(Full disclosure: This post also serves as a “trailer” for a book of mine due out this winter, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970, Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011.)
The evidence that most dramatically displays the decline in dinners comes from a continuing commercial survey conducted by the DDB-Needham company since the 1970s. One trend is shown in red in the figure below. The line tracks the percentage of respondents, by year, who answered a question asking how often they had in the prior twelve months “entertained people in my home” by checking off 12 times or more. Around 1980, about 40 percent said they had entertained at least monthly; by the 2000s, less than 20 percent did.
(These data come from a surveys that are, by social science standards, unusual, but the DDB-Needham nmbers are central to Robert Putnam’s classic 2000 book, Bowling Alone, and he defends their validity well in the back pages of that book. Results for years after 2003 were not available.)
In a related question, DDB-Needham asked respondents how often they had given or attended a “dinner party” in the prior twelve months. The green line shows the trend. The percentage who reported having done so at least a dozen times dropped from about 16 percent in the late 1970s to about 5 percent in the 2000s. (The percentage who had been to at least five such events in the year dropped from about 50 to about 30 percent.)
These are the sorts of numbers that led to Putnam and others to conclude that Americans’ social lives had narrowed over the last generation or so.
However, the DDB-Needham surveys asked other questions as well. The figure below shows the percentage of respondents, by year, who agreed with the statement, “I spend a lot of time visiting friends.” The data show essentially no trend.
One could reconcile the two figures by dismissing the blue line as an unreliable report. However, much other survey data from these years (presented in the forthcoming book) point to a similar conclusion: Americans reported less at-home eating and entertaining, but also reported roughly the same level of personal meetings with friends away from home and more overall communication with friends.
Cherchez La Femme
What might account for this combination of trends? Some sort of society-wide social withdrawal would not explain the overall patterns. There seems to be something specific about entertaining at home.
The likeliest explanation points to the changing roles of women, especially of wives, in these years. The percentage of married women aged 25 to 64 who worked for pay rose from about 40 percent, still a minority even in 1970, to about 70 percent in the mid-1990s and afterwards. Where employed wives had been an exception in the 1970s, they are now the norm. Moreover, these employed women worked more hours and commuted longer than before.
(In Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that the move of women into paid work could not explain shifting social patterns, but sophisticated statistical analyses of the same and similar data by Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn – pdf – points to increased employment of women as a central factor.)
Not only does wives’ working make it hard for families to entertain and host dinners, it makes it hard for them to schedule trips to friends’ homes. Probably yet more critical, research (such as this) shows that working parents manage to preserve “quality time” with their children by cutting down on other things. They curtail sleep, for one, but they also cut down on housework and, apparently, entertaining.
The typical American adult of the 2000s seems happy, even eager, to talk to friends on the phone or by email and to meet with friends at Starbucks before or after work, but is not up to cleaning the house, cooking a fancy meal, and staying awake late to wash all the dishes. Life in two-jobs-per-couple America.